December 2017
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The Unbearable Clarity of Hindsight

We all make mistakes. How do you deal with them?

Hindsight is often unbearable because we see how obviously wrong a decision was when we made it. Our reactions vary from firing implicated managers, to cancelling expensive or delayed projects, to, perhaps the most common, shaking our heads and trying to forget, while moving on to the next thing.

Dan Gardner argues that all of these are completely normal reactions – and he is right. In his book Risk, Gardner writes engagingly about how we deal with risk as human beings. Our reactions are very predictable, quite explicable and usually, completely unconscious. This, he says, is partly because how we deal with fear is intertwined with our evolution, and we seldom reflect on how fear makes us react.

There are several reasons why our response to hindsight is often painful. We may be embarrassed or ashamed of our mistakes. We may be worried about their consequences. The acts of punishing perceived guilty parties, cancelling projects, and trying to forget are all completely normal. They may also be major mistakes.

These reactions have their place, but failing to analyze what went wrong – and why – can be very expensive. The embarrassment hindsight can cause needs to be put in the right light – and used properly.

If everyone knew it was a bad idea, you need to analyze why nobody said so. If you all suspended your disbelief, you need to know why. If warning signals were obvious, but you didn’t react, find out why.

Firing people for making mistakes and cancelling projects that have gone off track will not prevent recurrences unless you do more. Improving the process that led to the mistake may be more worth your effort. People can learn valuable lessons from their mistakes. Troubled projects can be turned around and even made profitable.

Hindsight does not have to be painful.

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